Today I want to address something that my hockey friends and I have been screaming about for a couple of weeks. In short: What in the world are the Toronto Maple Leafs doing?
Specifically, why are they rolling out James Reimer in net every game down the stretch in a season where they were actually in the playoff race? One answer is that it was a rebuilding year anyway, and so the Leafs had no expectations of making the playoffs once they decided to trade forward Kris Versteeg and defenseman Tomas Kaberle to competing eastern conference teams. So with it being a rebuilding year, the Leafs had to try to get James Reimer some experience down the stretch so that in future late-season runs, he would have these memories from 2011 to call upon.
I find this to be a poor answer given this season’s circumstances. As we currently stand, Toronto is 10th in the East, 6 points behind 7th and 8th places. Even at this point with around 12 games to go, that is not an insurmountable task. But instead of giving an honest go of it and starting a man in J-S Giguere who is the not-so-proud owner of the 2003 Conn Smythe Trophy (his team lost in 7 games), the Leafs continue to roll the obviously struggling Reimer in net. Over the last ten days, Reimer has allowed 5 goals in 40 minutes against Chicago, 4 goals at the Islanders, 3 goals a piece at home against the Flyers and Sabres, and 5 at home to Tampa Bay Monday night, a TB team that has been struggling to score of late. It could be noted that in the game against Chicago, J-S Giguere came in and backstopped a scoreless third period. Yes, the game was in hand for Chicago, but still.
While I do understand the idea behind giving a guy like Reimer the keys for a test run, I also think the Leafs made a mistake in not taking their fans quite as seriously as they probably should have. Will it result in a boycott or revolt? Absolutely not. Do I tend to believe teams owe fans anything? Not really, but there is a certain basement level of attempted success that the team should aspire to. When a team finds itself in the thick of things, albeit “accidentally,” and the choice is to either push hard for a top 8 finish or concede and still not finish in the top 3 or 4 of the draft order, why not have a go at it?
Another thing worth noting is that this is the Toronto Maple Leafs organization. This is the franchise that famously traded the farm to Boston for Phil Kessel, and is just lately starting to see any kind of consistency from Kessel. This trade has been cited as a major failure for GM Brian Burke by the fans and media. Typically I tend to lean the other way when a consensus opinion exists about a trade, but I’m not going to debate the merits of the Kessel trade here. I just want to point out that the organization already has many detractors, not the least of which are its own fans. So with that in mind, the thing to do is probably not give a foolish effort at this playoff opportunity that fell into their laps, but instead to go full speed ahead with some sort of combination of the best players they have and the players who could use some experience, not to entirely lean the way of the inexperienced youths.
Now I will say, the point of the NHL, ultimately, is to win Stanley Cups. The Toronto Maple Leafs almost certainly cannot win a Stanley Cup in 2011, so if they are in fact increasing the likelihood that they bring a Cup home in later years, then I have to say I understand the logic. I’m just not sure they are increasing those odds, and in the spirit of the game, it would have been nice to see this success-starved team in a premier NHL city have a go at these playoffs.